Our life in Christ, the life of the church, begins with what the Collect for this Sunday calls “the Paschal mystery.” Which is shorthand for what the passion, and death, and resurrection of Jesus reveals about God. This revelation is entirely consistent with the mission of Jesus’ life, his teachings and healings and all that he did in Galilee, and in Jerusalem, and everywhere in between. But the Paschal mystery is how the disciples of Jesus finally understood what he was really all about. It’s how they knew that he really was the Messiah, The One Anointed by the Spirit to deliver them from bondage and reconcile them to God. The Paschal mystery was their Passover, an experience of liberation greater even than the deliverance of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt in the Passover of long ago.
This sounds grand, and it would, in time, prove to have world-shaking implications. But we have to remember that for all its promising beginnings, the mission of Jesus was, in worldly terms, a total failure. As a political revolution or a social movement, or even a religious revival, it was a complete bust. And everyone who thought of it in those terms was disappointed. They crossed him off the list of potential messiahs and moved on to look for the next likely candidate. One of his own disciples became aware (we don’t know exactly when) that something was seriously wrong with Jesus’ plan. His name was Judas, and he decided to trade on his inside information, and so to come out on top when the stuff hit the fan.
The stories say that, later, he regretted his betrayal and took his own life in despair. And the rest of Jesus’ inner circle must have felt something similar. Some of them, at least, shared the hopes of the crowd that waved their branches of palm on that day Jesus that rode into Jerusalem and shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the Kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!” So it must have been a shock to learn how badly those hopes had been misplaced. But, as with Judas, their pain went deeper than mere disillusionment. It was tinged with personal betrayal. They may not have led the authorities to the place where Jesus was praying, or singled him out with a kiss, but neither did they stand by him as he was led away to his death. They abandoned him and fled.
And in the long hours of that grim Friday and desolate Saturday, who can say what dark thoughts ran through their fearful and grief-stricken minds? As they replayed their recent words and deeds again and again, remembering the bold declarations of loyalty they’d made, and how they’d proved false, what rationalizations and self-justifications did they make to explain? What recriminations and resentments did they lodge secretly in their hearts, against each other and even against their disgraced master?
Because for them, the mission of Jesus was personal. They had not come looking for him, drawn by rumors of a charismatic young rabbi who could heal with a touch of his hand. He had come looking for them, and they’d left home and family and livelihood in response to his call. They had not jumped on the bandwagon in the last big journey to Jerusalem, but had been on the road with him all over Galilee, from Tyre and Sidon to the Decapolis and up to Caesarea Philippi. They’d gone across the sea with him on a stormy night, and to a field at sundown miles from nowhere with a hungry crowd. They’d gone out to heal the sick and drive out demons in his name, and had preached the coming of the Kingdom of God.
And they’d grown in the process, grown in ways they’d never known they could. They’d felt important, like their lives mattered for something and that they could make a difference in the world. They’d learned so much about what God could do if you really had faith, and about what people could be if you treated them with honor and love, like brothers and sisters of a single family. They’d come to love and depend on each other, and even though they’d had their petty rivalries and jealousies, Jesus had helped them see that with prayer and humility, with patience and forgiveness, they could move through their conflicts to deeper intimacy and trust.
They’d seen a glorious vision of the world as it could be, and they’d imagined that if Jesus was in charge, if they were in charge with him, that vision could come true, not in some distant future time, but here and now. But in the sleepless hours of those nights in Jerusalem that vision mocked them. Another had taken its place, and suffocated them with fear—a vision of tramping boots in the narrow street, of fists hammering at the door, of torches and swords, and grasping hands, the cries of an angry mob, the cruel and contemptuous faces of the Gentiles, the scourge, the nails, the agony of hanging from the tree. How could Jesus have led them there, and left them alone with no hope and no plan, in this city of his enemies? With only each other for comfort, the very sight of whom was a reminder of how they’d been fooled, and how he had failed?
But still they loved him, and in the end it was love that prevailed. Love sent Joseph to Pilate to ask for his body, and wrapped it in linen and laid it in his tomb. Love emboldened the women to keep watch at the cross from afar, and they saw where the body was laid. In love Mary Magdalene went before dawn on the first day of the week, to stand at the tomb and weep. It was with the eyes of love that she saw the stone was rolled away. She ran to Peter and John, whose hearts leaped in love as they raced to the garden and saw that the tomb was empty. And Jesus came to Mary and spoke her name in love, and she recognized her Teacher.
That night love came through the doors that fear had barred. He came, not as an avenging ghost, but with the Spirit of peace and forgiveness. He showed them the marks of his wounds, as if to say, “Yes, it is true. This world is as you left it when you set out to follow me—estranged from God; trapped in its nightmare of terror and ignorance, its worship of gold, and iron and blood. But I breathe on you so you will know that the life that flows from love and truth is more real than the works of death. That life is my life; I gave myself to it completely, and now it lives in me completely, and I can never die.
It was that life you recognized when we first met. It was what led you to follow me. And the journey we began in that moment is not over; the dream we had of a world set free is not false; today it starts to wake the world. I am with you now more closely than I could be before: I am peace in your heart; I am your love for God and God’s love for you. And you must be to each other as I was to you, and you were to me, because you are my Body.”
And so they could begin at once to live the new life he’d given them, Jesus chose a time to visit when Thomas wasn’t there. For a week the disciples celebrated their vindication, and rejoiced at their liberation, praising the goodness and the mercy of God, with one in their midst who refused to believe. Here is where the church could have fallen apart before it ever got out of the gate. They could have excluded Thomas for not being one of the elect. Thomas could have gone away in frustration with this Jesus who had not shown himself to him, and disgust with these crazy people and their outlandish tale.
This is a story for us, about us. Which of us doesn’t know what it’s like to be Thomas, sitting in church feeling like we’re on the outside looking in? But this is a story about the birth of a community of reconciliation. It is not constituted by exclusion, or by an exaggerated sense of its own virtue and goodness. It lives, instead, by the memory of wounds, of loss restored and guilt forgiven. By the grace of their encounter with the risen Lord, the disciples would not treat Thomas as less than themselves. And Thomas could see that there was something about them that had changed, something that reminded him of Jesus, and so he stuck around. He was still there when another Sunday came, when the peace of the risen Lord came among them again, and doubting Thomas put his hand in the wounds of the living God.